March 25th, 2017

On censorship and A Serbian Film

This week the Australian film commentariat was rocked by the sensational banning of the controversial horror flick A Serbian Film, a full month after it was originally passed by the Australian government’s Classification Board and made available for purchase in Australian DVD stores. The Classification Review Board (an entity distinct from the Classification Board) determined that:

“In the Review Board’s opinion, A Serbian Film could not be accommodated within the R 18+ classification as the level of depictions of sexual violence, themes of incest and depictions of child sexual abuse in the film has an impact which is very high and not justified by context.”

As a result of this determination, the film is now banned from sale in Australia and is being withdrawn from the few stores who chose to sell it. (JB Hi-Fi CEO Terry Smart had already pledged not to sell the film in any of his company’s stores, and as a film with limited appeal even to horror buffs very few stores had made it available by the time of its withdrawal.)

The film was referred to the Review Board by Brendan O’Connor, a Victorian Labor politician who in the past has fought for the introduction of an R 18+ classification for video games, concerned that games which should only be available to adults are instead classified as MA 15+ (the highest possible rating), and subsequently made available to youths. Also calling for the withdrawal of the film was Collective Shout, an organisation whose mission is to “name, shame and expose corporations, advertisers, marketers and media engaging in practices which are offensive and harmful especially to women and girls”.

It’s important to note that the Classification Board – the body to which all films distributed in Australia must be submitted for approval before being made available – originally gave A Serbian Film a Refused Classification rating, effectively banning it from sale in Australia. The distributor, Accent Films, then cut some of the more objectionable scenes from the film and submitted it to the Review Board, who judged that the revised cut was suitable for release and gave it an R 18+ rating on August 19, the day it opened the Melbourne Underground Film Festival.

Even in its shortened form the film is highly controversial for its depiction of rape, child sexual abuse and necrophilia. Luke Buckmaster, writing for Crikey after its MUFF screening, termed the film “morally irredeemable”, calling it “a revolting experience” and saying that “no amount of flimsy academic posturing or faux Freudian analysis can come close to legitimising A Serbian Film“. Coyly, he refrained from passing judgement on whether the film should have been banned, but made it clear that he sees no redeeming value in the film as an artistic work.

On the other hand, the film is not without its supporters who – almost without exception – defend director Srdjan Spasojevic’s right to express his artistic vision, without going so far as to condone the film’s content.

But I haven’t seen the film, and I’m not even going to bother discussing its content, because here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what I think. Adult Australians, who are trusted to vote, drive and procreate (hopefully not simultaneously) should be allowed to decide for themselves what they see and hear without a government body deciding for them. If I want to purchase A Serbian Film and watch it in the privacy of my own home, I should be allowed to without first having to run it by faceless public servants (or interested lobby groups) for a thumbs up, regardless of how many others find its content offensive. If I don’t want to purchase it, then that shouldn’t stop someone who is interested from buying it for themselves, which affects me not one wit.

The problem is that the film’s detractors are making value judgements on the film’s artistic merit (sometimes without even seeing the film), which is irrelevant, inherently subjective, and can never be adequately quantified by any one person or government body. The point of this discussion should not be that the film depicts offensive things, but that regardless of what the film depicts, people need to be able to decide for themselves whether they will see it. If Mr. O’Connor personally finds the film disagreeable, no one is forcing him to watch it and the same can be said of anyone else who finds the film morally corrupt.

Why does Mr. O’Connor believe that adults should be able to make their own choices with regards to video games, but doesn’t believe we should be afforded the same luxury when it comes to film? Is it right that it is so easy for a relatively small number of highly-motivated activists to affect potentially many thousands more by calling for the the censorship of a film?

Perhaps I’m naïve to hope that Australia will ever do away with film and literature censorship, but at the very least the National Classification Scheme should acknowledge that even the most controversial works are artistically valid, and allow such works to be made available in restricted form to adults. Let’s not forget that some of the most celebrated art in history has been controversial; for just two relevant examples, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, celebrated films from two of cinema’s most respected auteurs, were once banned from exhibition in Australia.

In fifty years time, will we look back on this experience and wonder how it ever got this far?

Further reading:

A Serbian Film banned by the Classification Review Board, Cinetology
The Schizophrenic Nature of Australian Classification, RichOnFilm
Banned, Allowed, Banned Again: A Serbian Film in Australia, That Guy with the Glasses
A Serbian Film banned in Australia; recalled from all vendors, Quickflix Blog

About Bradley J. Dixon

Bradley J. Dixon is a freelance writer and blogger from Melbourne.

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